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The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection. The netsuke—drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers—were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past. Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry. The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.


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The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection. The netsuke—drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers—were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past. Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry. The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.

30 review for The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    After the first few pages I was wondering whether this wa going to be one I would have to wade through as a noble act of bookclub fidelity. However, its like a walk up a mountain where you are straining up a hill, panting and feeling its your duty and then suddenly you brow the hill and there opening out before you is this great vista and you get a second wind and off you go at a cracking pace. This is exactly what happened with this really clever concept. Edmund de Waal, a potter, traces the hi After the first few pages I was wondering whether this wa going to be one I would have to wade through as a noble act of bookclub fidelity. However, its like a walk up a mountain where you are straining up a hill, panting and feeling its your duty and then suddenly you brow the hill and there opening out before you is this great vista and you get a second wind and off you go at a cracking pace. This is exactly what happened with this really clever concept. Edmund de Waal, a potter, traces the history of 264 netsuke, small japanese ornaments made from various woods and stones, through their purchase by one of his ancestors in the 1870's through their journey to Paris, Vienna, Tunbridge Wells on to a return to Japan and then back to their final (?) resting place in London. The 120 years or so of their possession by the Ephrussi family corresponds to the families journey from fabulously wealthy bankers forming alliances and business deals which involve massive amounts of money and floating in social circles involving the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and assorted high related royals and politicians to the hideous reversal of fortunes with the anschluss, the arrival of Hitler and the betrayal of the family along with all the other jewish men, women and children who had been so useful in some situations but now necessary as the traditional scapegoat. Edmund de Waal has a simple technique of relating his family history through their relationship to these small ornaments. Each one tells a story but each one's story is incomplete, open-ended; His family history shows that. The ornaments rest in a cupboard in Paris, fabulously wealthy...here they are complete but no they are sent as a wedding present to an equally wealthy austrian branch of the family. Here they rest in a beautiful showcase, their journey ended....no the horror of viennese pogroms threaten them as it destroyed the family. And saved by the maid servant they move on again but as a perfect symbol of the family's implosion they move from their enthronement in walnut, glass and velvet to their hiding place inside a servant's straw mattress. After the war she hands them back to surviving members of the family, a small fragment, almost all that is left of the ridiculous wealth enjoyed by this family prior to their undoing by the foul action of the Nazis. Nevertheless one small side of me is saddened by the fact that the devotion and fidelity of the servant who, at risk of her own life, preserves this wealth, is just accpeted by the family as their right. The cruelty and degradation perpetrated on the family in the 1930's and 40's was monstrous but prior to that the family themselves struck me as heartless, egocentric libertines. Living lives of wasteful opulence and insensitive gluttony. They did not deserve the terror of course but perhaps their servants and those who saw their flaunting of their wealth did not deserve their poverty either and the family seem quite unable to acknowledge that and indeed the gratitude that they owe to the loyalty of their servants.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jan Rice

    At first I thought this book was slow, overly preoccupied with art at the expense of narrative, and becalmed. By the end, the author's view-as-artist illumined the narrative and its characters, who are several past generations of his family. As all the summaries and reviews say, the generation of his great grandfather were a wealthy Jewish banking and grain exporting dynasty in Paris and Vienna and around Europe, and also art collectors and patrons, but in the next generation the family's financ At first I thought this book was slow, overly preoccupied with art at the expense of narrative, and becalmed. By the end, the author's view-as-artist illumined the narrative and its characters, who are several past generations of his family. As all the summaries and reviews say, the generation of his great grandfather were a wealthy Jewish banking and grain exporting dynasty in Paris and Vienna and around Europe, and also art collectors and patrons, but in the next generation the family's financial wealth and influence was lost in the conflagration of Hitler and WWII. The author has gone on a voyage of discovery to reclaim his family and the lost world they experienced, putting his own career and family on hold in the meantime. At first what he's doing wasn't clearly apparent. I could see his amateurism in the writing, for example, ambiguous meaning, or foreign words not always defined, but not why he was writing it. Even though he was saying why, I couldn't hear. You have to be persistent with this book and stick with the author; if you do, it will pay off. Since he's on that voyage of discovery, he doesn't always know himself just where he's going, how much time to invest in researching and writing, or whether what he's doing is important. The journey is an achievement. The author didn't have to go on this journey but he did. Antisemitism At times the Ephrussis and the others of their circle were living the lives of aristocrats, but whenever anything went wrong, they were targeted in writing and the media. When an artist's Jewish patron was supporting him at the level to which that artist had become accustomed, everything was hunky dory, but, if not, it was because the patron was giving precedence to "Jew art." When a Catholic bank with ties to the Church collapsed, popular analysis related the circumstance to Jewish bankers nonchalantly playing at enormous financial transactions as though at a party game. "The clever, quick-witted, indefatigable Jew" had been gifted with freedom in their countries, only to "prey upon a public and political world totally unfit for defense against or competition with him. Fresh from Talmud and synagogue, and consequently trained to conjure with the law and skilled in intrigue, the invading Semite arrived from Galicia or Hungary and carried everything before him. Unknown and therefore unchecked by public opinion, without any 'stake in the country' and therefore reckless, he sought only to gratify his insatiable appetite for wealth and power..." (English writer Henry Wickham Steed) Capitalism and the Jews is really good regarding conspiracy theories like that. The author, Jerry Muller, is a historian, not an economist or businessman. My review can be found at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/.... History How recent the emancipation of Jews in Europe has been isn't always evident in this book. Jews had only been allowed out of the ghettos or shtetls in the author's great- and great-great grandfathers' day, whereupon some had proceeded to achieve commercial, professional, academic, and artistic heights within two generations. A couple of years ago at the Decatur (GA) Book Festival I heard Doug Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, speak. He remarked on the explosion of achievement and creativity by African Americans upon freedom from Jim Crow; his term was "unprecedented," if I remember right. He might have considered the Jews of Europe in the 1800s to have been a precedent. In the acknowledgements, the author includes Michael Goldfarb as one of three people who encouraged him to "stop talking and start writing." That is almost certainly the same Michael Goldfarb who wrote Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, a highly readable history. I recommend it to accompany this book and fill in the historical gaps. Religious feeling The reader could get the picture that the Ephrussis were "secular Jews" devoid of religious feeling or attachment to Judaism. There are clues at the end, albeit subtle, that the reader could be wrong. This author is not very adept at describing such feelings, not even, for example, in his father, a clergyman. When, a few generations earlier, Jews were in their ghettos or shtetls Judaism wasn't a religion; it was a way--a way of life. When they emerged, the social realities upon which that was based were decimated. Goldfarb writes that in the first generation there were a lot of conversions, e.g., Heinrich Heine; Marx's father, etc. With avenues of creativity opening, the hemorrhaging slowed. The Ephrussis could have converted before the Nazis forced their hand but did not. I've read that, in Germany, society demanded that the contribution of Jews be in terms of what they gave up of Jewishness not what they gave from their heritage. Sometimes I think of all the American Jewish celebrities and scientists today who declare they're secular or atheist. They think they are being so smart and rational but it comes across to me that same way--that they're knuckling under. I think people know that being a minority in a majority culture has its impact, but when it comes to ourselves we underestimate that kind of impact. **July 23, 2013--I've been editing some parts of this review that were too negative, which I want to mention in case the editing affects how some of the comments appear in relation to the review.** News! The author's grandmother's novel, which he thought was unpublishable, has been published earlier this year: The Exiles Return. There was a beautiful review by Erica Wagner, identified as the literary editor of The Times of London, in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine--but there is no link that I can post. Now I'm thinking I may have been able to open and copy/paste, but I haven't done that yet. Anyway, she says Edmund de Waal was overly modest about his grandmother's book. She says she was expecting "an inward-looking, ruminative meditation on the aftermath of conflict" and "found instead...a bold, gripping, and highly political novel." She further says it's no surprise Elisabeth de Waal couldn't find a publisher right after the end of the war, since the book "deals frankly with anti-Semitism and the lingering stench of the Holocaust." There are already a few reviews on Goodreads. Addendum, Dec. 15, 2013: Trading in Grain From my current book on capitalism in western thought, The Mind and the Market by Jerry Muller, I'm coming to understand a little about the place of the grain trade in economics--worthy of an addendum here since the Ephrussi financial empire was founded on the wheat business. By way of background, both Christianity and the Greek city-state looked down not only on money lending but also on commerce. In Christian thought wealth had been seen as an evil, and commerce, too. Man was to earn his living by the sweat of his brow. Trade--buying cheap in one place and selling at a profit somewhere else--was stealing, based on the theory that there was only so much wealth and on ignorance of the roles of knowledge and risk-taking. For the classical Greeks, unlike the Christian theologians, wealth wasn't evil. The head of household needed to have sufficient wealth to not have to work and to be ready for war and defense of the polis. Commerce was necessary and tolerated, including the purchase of grain to feed everybody, but neither merchants nor craftsmen were citizens. For the heads of household to engage in commerce was seen as placing them in competition, which could interfere with their cooperation and readiness for war. Now, what about grain? I've just read a fourth of the Muller book, and so far he has made no general pronouncement about grain, but it has come up in medieval times and again in the 18th century. Gratian's Decretum, a 12th century collection of thousands of texts and a basis of canon law for the church, specifically included grain traders among the ranks of usurers. In the 18th century, the most sensitive question of economic policy was that of what the government's role should be in policing the supply of grain, per Muller (p. 94); according to the 18th century economic thinkers he's reporting on so far, government actions had a paradoxical effect, that is, made grain more expensive. In the late 18th century there had been poor harvests, so that the price of grain went up, leading to rural unrest and popular passions against those who traded in foodstuffs. Why should traders be allowed to profit from hunger and the fact that people were in need? Why shouldn't low-cost grain be distributed or prices be controlled? If most people don't understand the role of the market in the distribution of foodstuffs, then, according to Edmund Burke, for example, "one role of the intellectual in politics is to combat popular prejudice in matters economic, and to advise legislators to stand up to short-term political and moral pressures when they threaten long-term national economic interests" (p. 117). [Note of 04/14/2014: I missed a major aspect of what Muller (The Mind and the Market) was getting at in the section I referenced in the above paragraph. Muller was meaning to show Burke's conservatism relative to Adam Smith. Burke looked with suspicion on the motivations of the common man. He thought that class' fear, envy, and ignorance would lead them, against their own long-term interests, to interfere with the freedom of the market. He privileged the existing aristocratic class as a pillar of society. He thought it was the role of the intellectual to educate the established powers on the free market, which he sometimes spoke of in religious tones.] As my husband explained to me in very simple terms, in times of food shortages the price of grain does go up, but if there were no merchants and no grain had been stored, there would be no grain, or very little, so instead of just being more costly, it would be beyond expensive, that is, priceless. Grain merchants who succeed have to learn a lot to do so, and they take a risk, losing money in years of plentiful harvests. Governments don't have that same incentive to success. They can't be the middlemen themselves, or can't be very good ones. My husband also remembered recurrent reports of the Soviet Union's not being able to feed its citizens. Back to The Hare with Amber Eyes: ...Charles Joachim Ephrussi had masterminded this expansion from Odessa in the 1850s. A true patriarch, he had two sons from his first marriage.... And then when he remarried...he continued producing children.... Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was...a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make. Charles Joachim Ephrussi had transformed a small grain-trading business into a huge enterprise by cornering the market in buying wheat. He bought the grain from the middlemen who transported it on carts from the rich black soil of the Ukrainian wheat fields, the greatest wheat fields in the world, into the port of Odessa. Here the grain was stored in his warehouses before being exported across the Black Sea, up the Danube, across the Mediterranean. By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world.... The masterplan was to build on this network of contacts and finance huge capital projects. ...Ephrussi et Cie would change from being a very successful commodity trading house into an international finance house. It would become a bank. And each helpful deal struck...would be a step toward even greater respectability, a step further from those wagons of wheat creaking in from the Ukraine. (pp. 24-25) And how was this spun? It wasn't just Renoir who disliked the Jews. A string of financial scandals throughout the 1880s were laid at the door of the new Jewish financiers, and the Ephrussi family was a particular target.... The popular demagogue Edouard Drumont wrote in La France juive: The audicity with which these men treat these enormous operations, which for them are just simple game parties, is incredible. In one session, Michel Ephrussi buys or sells oil or wheat worth ten or fifteen millions. No trouble.... ...Money is seen to be a bagatelle to these Jewish money-men, implies Drumont, a plaything. It has no connection to the savings carefully taken into the bank on market day or hidden in the coffee pot on the mantlepiece. It is a vivid image of covert power, of plotting. It has the intention of Degas's painting At the Bourse of a whispered conversation between hook-nosed, red-bearded financiers amongst the pillars. The Bourse and its players segue into the Temple and the moneychangers. "Who shall stop these men from living then, who shall soon make France look like a wasteland then?...it is the speculator in foreign wheat, it is the Jew...the favorite of all the salons of the aristocratic quarter; it is Ephrussi, the chief of the Jewish band who speculate on wheat." Speculation, the making of money out of money, is seen as a particular Jewish sin.... (pp. 90-91) This addendum on trading in grain represents my effort to better understand the targeting of the Ephrussis and others that was described in The Hare with Amber Eyes.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kalliope

    I would have enjoyed this book more had I been less familiar with some of the topics tackled during its first half. Namely, the Paris and Vienna of the 1870-1914 period with Impressionism, Japonisme, Proust, circles of Jewish finance and art patrons, Dreyfus affair…and the parallel Building of the Ringstrasse, the Sezession, Psychoanalysis, etc. All this is a bit of a déjà vu (or déjà lu) for me. But Edmund de Waal easily escapes the clichés when he relies on well-known cultural episodes. As the I would have enjoyed this book more had I been less familiar with some of the topics tackled during its first half. Namely, the Paris and Vienna of the 1870-1914 period with Impressionism, Japonisme, Proust, circles of Jewish finance and art patrons, Dreyfus affair…and the parallel Building of the Ringstrasse, the Sezession, Psychoanalysis, etc. All this is a bit of a déjà vu (or déjà lu) for me. But Edmund de Waal easily escapes the clichés when he relies on well-known cultural episodes. As the great-grandchild of the Ephrussis, the family whose history the book traces, he is endowed with both a material and a moral advantage. With access to family letters, photographs and personal testimonies, his account has a veneer of authenticity and freshness that is welcomed. And as a ceramist, De Waal (commissioned by the V&A to design the new ceramics galleries) literally handles the history of his family by turning it slowly and carefully around and around, paying meticulous attention to all its materiality. What emerges is a fascinating and very sad story of a Jewish family in the Europe from late 19th Century onwards. All in all, an endearing book with counterbalanced Diaspora and Home Returning stories: the Ephrussis and their Netsuke collection.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Peter Clothier

    There are many excellent reasons for reading The Hare with Amber Eyes. Its author, Edmund De Waal, is known to the world as a fine ceramic artist, whose work is widely shown in museums and galleries. He is also an exceptionally fine writer, bringing an artist’s sensibility to this other medium: a meticulous attention to the detail of language, its rhythms and its evocative potential. Read the book for its exhaustive descriptions of interiors, whether bel époque Paris or Wiener Werkstatt Vienna; There are many excellent reasons for reading The Hare with Amber Eyes. Its author, Edmund De Waal, is known to the world as a fine ceramic artist, whose work is widely shown in museums and galleries. He is also an exceptionally fine writer, bringing an artist’s sensibility to this other medium: a meticulous attention to the detail of language, its rhythms and its evocative potential. Read the book for its exhaustive descriptions of interiors, whether bel époque Paris or Wiener Werkstatt Vienna; for its evocations of historical moments like fin de siecle France, or Austria at the time of its annexation by Hitler and his Nazis, or immediately post-war, bombed-out Tokyo; or for its compassionate portrayal of flawed and fascinating human characters. Read it as a four-generational family saga, or an insightful history of Europe from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Read it even, also, particularly, as a personal journey, an exploration into the complex world of family heritage—and inheritance. I came to the book as the result of reading a column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times before we left for Europe last month, and ordered it in time to take it with us on our trip. But I didn’t get to actually read it until this past week. The column was called “The Netsuke Survived”, and Cohen’s description of the book intrigued me. It was a story of the survival—not only of a collection of Japanese netsuke, but of the European Jewish family through whose various hands it passed, the family of which De Waal, brought up as the son of an Anglican minister, was the barely informed scion. His research soon turned into an obsession that sidetracked him for two years from his own work as an artist. The story, as it eventually revealed itself to him—and now, in turn, to us—is at once absorbing and increasingly moving as it progresses. The Ephrussi family, originally from Odessa, worked its way to fame and fortune in Paris and Vienna in the late 1800s. The fortune derived from its prodigious success in the banking business—a success that initially gave its members access to the social elites and the cultural salons. This part of the story involves associations and friendships with artists Renoir, Degas and others; with giants of the literary scene like Proust and the (virulently anti-Semitic) Goncourt brothers. Until “l’affaire Dreyfus,” and its opening of that deep vein of envy and distrust of Jews in French society—a time at which the family seemed suddenly to have outlived the welcome they had worked so hard to foster since arriving from the East. Once great and powerful social hosts and patrons of the arts, they found themselves all too soon personae a lot less grata. De Waal’s descriptive narrative places us there, in the center of it all, at this turbulent time. The scene, along with ownership of the netsuke collection, shifts to pre-World War I Vienna and its social whirl, where another branch of the Ephrussi family has also established a foothold in the banking business; their massive mansion occupies a significant site on the Ringstrasse, and their role in the business and socio-economic establishment seems assured. They have become the proverbial pillars of society, living a life of extraordinary privilege and wealth. Patriots, too, they give generously of their wealth and power to their adopted country, serving with distinction in the military, supporting the war effort in every way, and sharing in the humiliation of defeat. They could scarcely have foreseen what the next decade would bring them in return: increasing distrust, suspicion, isolation and, all too soon, the arrival of the brutish Nazis and persecution, not only at the hands of the Gestapo but also those of their compatriots. We watch, aghast, as the family is brought to ruin. It's a dreadful lesson in impermanence In the chaos, it is Anna, a faithful family retainer, who saves the netsuke collection from the hands of the invaders. They, with impunity, steal everything else—the art, the beloved books, the mansion, the bank, and eventually all traces of identity, dignity and security. One of the great strengths, I think, of De Waal’s account, is not to disguise the classism of the nouveaux-riches, not to minimize the extent of their wealth and privilege nor the excesses--and sometimes the frivolity--of their way of life. We understand, perhaps, a little more—though without in any way condoning—the angrily envious attitudes of the have-nots that laid open the way for an Adolph Hitler and his gang of murderers. (We also understand a little more about the problems that we face today, a century later, and their origins in a capitalist economy and its detractors.) But never, as we read, are we allowed to share that “got it coming to them” rage that led to the horrors of the Holocaust. The penultimate chapter in the netsuke’s journey is in the country of their origin, Japan, where De Waal’s great uncle goes to take up residence after World War II and, along with the author, we reflect on that far country’s culture and the aesthetic that produced these tiny, intricate and meticulously crafted works of art. By the end of the book he himself is in possession of this family treasure—all that remains, aside from brittle letters and documents, of a great family and its history. It is a poignant end. In the course of his search, the author has found some important piece of his own humanity and a renewed sense of the value of those closest to him in their London home. In all, this is a very rich and satisfying read. When in England, we felt compelled to make the pilgrimage to see "Splash," the current installation of De Waal’s art work at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The elegant, simple, even minimal shapes of his pure white pots, dozens of them in a staggered, uneven row, occupy the entire “whispering gallery,” the circular base of a dome on the top floor, in the museum’s wonderful ceramics department. The installation requires a sharply raised head to gain even a distant glance at them. At this remove, they offer the viewer a sense of serenity, an appreciation for the beauty of form for its own sake, a stillness as remote as Keats’s Grecian urn. Their cool, insistently formal, abstract beauty contrasted curiously, I thought, with the intricate carving of the netsuke he describes in his book, and with its emotional intensity. Placed so far from the viewer’s eye, they do not invite the touch that clearly means so much to him in his relationship with the netsuke; on the other hand, the touch of the artist’s hand is clearly what defines their shape and presence, and their denial of it to the viewer is perhaps as powerful as the permission. Certainly, it brought attention to my own desire to know things in this way, through first-hand experience; and yet, as de Waal’s book shows, time alone deprives us of that possibility. There is much we must be content to know only at a distance, and through the mediation of one who cares enough to show us the way.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Filip

    The concept of tracing the history of a rich Jewish bankers family through the vicissitudes of a collection of Japanese miniature sculptures, is original and interesting. The beginning of the book is a bit slow, but it then comes to life with fascinating descriptions of the Ephrussi in Paris during Impressionism or in Vienna during the first part of the 20th century, ending with dramatic events surrounding the Austrian Anschluss into the German Reich. And yet it is hard to feel much sympathy eith The concept of tracing the history of a rich Jewish bankers family through the vicissitudes of a collection of Japanese miniature sculptures, is original and interesting. The beginning of the book is a bit slow, but it then comes to life with fascinating descriptions of the Ephrussi in Paris during Impressionism or in Vienna during the first part of the 20th century, ending with dramatic events surrounding the Austrian Anschluss into the German Reich. And yet it is hard to feel much sympathy either for this family or for the author. A wronged sense of entitlement pervades much of the book, and a lot of energy goes into describing how the family lost most of its wealth under the Nazis (the description of the Kristallnacht mob entering the Ephrussi building and ransacking the furniture is blood-curdling). On the other hand, no moral judgment is passed on how the Ephrussi had been spending their money until then, nor is the reader left any clearer as to how the Ephrussi's fortune was amassed in a few short decades only. In this romantic vision of "When my family played Downton Abbey in Vienna", servants receive short shrift: Anna, the saviour of the netsuke collection, is quickly dismissed (nobody in the family even remembers her last name); and of course the doorman is blamed for letting the gates wide open for the Gestapo on an inspection visit (as if a closed door was going to stop them). It would have been easier to warm to the family if the author had come across as less self-absorbed. His pottery activity is mentioned regularly, but is pretty much irrelevant to the book; and some odd choices in vocabulary (a "glaucous" pudding - really?) betray the random use of a thesaurus to impress the readers. Finally, some fact-checking would have been in order, so as to get the spelling and syntax of French and German phrases right. The errors are not only linguistic, but also historical and geographic: Czechoslovakia did not exist before 1918, so the Ephrussi couldn't have had a country estate there (if anything, before WWI they would probably have thought of it as Hungary). Dachau is not on the edge of Bavaria but on the outskirts of Munich. Germany was the land of thinkers and poets ("Land der Dichter und Denker"), not Austria - etc etc. Overall, an interesting read of a flawed book. The awards for the book seem motivated by compassion for the riches-to-rags family history (coupled with a Goodwin bonus), more than for the craftsmanship of the author.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This was an interesting read and a fascinating account of the journey of a group of netsuke through a family history of about 140 years and several generations. The journey moves from Paris to Vienna, across Europe through Nazism and to Japan. De Waal's family history is fascinating and I was particularly interested in the link to Proust and Great Great Uncle Charles being the model for Swann. The descriptions of furnishings and the decorative aspect of the grand residences are sumptuous. De Waal This was an interesting read and a fascinating account of the journey of a group of netsuke through a family history of about 140 years and several generations. The journey moves from Paris to Vienna, across Europe through Nazism and to Japan. De Waal's family history is fascinating and I was particularly interested in the link to Proust and Great Great Uncle Charles being the model for Swann. The descriptions of furnishings and the decorative aspect of the grand residences are sumptuous. De Waal has an artist's eye and a good way with words. The account of the rise of Nazism, the Anschluss and the dismantling of the family's fortunes give a clear and frightening first hand account of the horrors of the 1930s and the war. Their fortunes reflect those of many wealthy Jewish families at that time. De Waal has put together his family history well. The only caveat I have is that the accumulation of wealth is seldom a neutral thing; especially in a family of bankers. I would have been more interested in some detail about the lives of those who made them and the conditions in which they were made; and perhaps some sense of the contrast of fabulous wealth with society around. I felt a little uncomfortable that the servants were just referred to by their first names (did anyone know their surnames). On the whole it was a fascinating journey and one I enjoyed.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Oh my good Lord, what did I do that you put me through the torture of reading that book? Did I like it? No. It is a story of the authors family in a blindly tunnel vision view of how everyone was out to get his Jewish family as they rose to the pinnacle of society in the Austrian empire, survived more or less as well as anyone else did in the 2nd world war and on to his gay uncles exploits in Japan. With such wonderful chapter starters as "It wasn't just Renoir who hated the Jews..." (note no justi Oh my good Lord, what did I do that you put me through the torture of reading that book? Did I like it? No. It is a story of the authors family in a blindly tunnel vision view of how everyone was out to get his Jewish family as they rose to the pinnacle of society in the Austrian empire, survived more or less as well as anyone else did in the 2nd world war and on to his gay uncles exploits in Japan. With such wonderful chapter starters as "It wasn't just Renoir who hated the Jews..." (note no justification for the accusation whatsoever, other than the mute point that allegedly Renoir had a dislike for one of his great uncles). The later chapters of the book had a bit more potential, but it really wasn't up to scratch. Great as someone’s personal notes, but sadly he didn't keep them to himself.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

    I started out giving Hare with Amber Eyes four stars, but as it settled in, I decided to up it to five stars. This is a very special book – de Waal approaches his extraordinary family history as the artist he is, art, paintings, and especially decorative objects and architecture are all infused with his extraordinary visual and tactile sense. I don’t use the word “extraordinary” lightly. From the story's beginnings in the shtetl of Berdishev (where the Ukraine meets Poland – not far from the an I started out giving Hare with Amber Eyes four stars, but as it settled in, I decided to up it to five stars. This is a very special book – de Waal approaches his extraordinary family history as the artist he is, art, paintings, and especially decorative objects and architecture are all infused with his extraordinary visual and tactile sense. I don’t use the word “extraordinary” lightly. From the story's beginnings in the shtetl of Berdishev (where the Ukraine meets Poland – not far from the ancestral home of my own family – although all we have in common with the Ephrussi are our roots and our diaspora, there are no palaces in European capitals bearing our crest!) through a crescendo of unbelievable wealth and (perhaps even more enviable) easy communion with the great artists and writers of the day, on to the inevitable tragedy that marks all European Jewish stories in the WW2 era, through – improbably and beautifully – a charming gay love story in post-war Japan, and ending with the perfect and incongruous image of de Waal’s father, an Anglican clergyman, saying Kaddish for his Austrian-Jewish mother in an English chapel, every phase of DeWaal's family story amazes, challenges, delights and/or saddens. Charles Ephrussi is a particularly stunning character. To inspire Proust and have had walk-ons in Renoir paintings! If you have read Proust, learning about Ephrussi (and his relationship to his art and to his Jewishness) will give new texture to Swann and the world he and Proust’s narrator move in. If you haven’t read Proust, this book will probably make you want to. It certainly made me want to re-read Swann’s Way, and to search out many of paintings discussed. But as exhilarating as those scenes of Paris mondanity are (and as heartbreaking and infuriating the World War II chapters are – Austria refusing to return property because it was the “first victim” of the Nazis!), it’s De Waal’s contemplative, searching – sometimes meandering – voice that really gets under your skin and lets you see objects and textures through his eyes. I dreamed of some of his imagery while reading this book – that’s how rich the relationship to vision is in his writing – and I finished the book with an insatiable craving to see and handle a netsuke! Highly recommended.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Turner

    I have just finished The hare with amber eyes. I thought it was one of the most stunning books I'd ever read. The language is wonderful. The stories in France where Renoir and Proust just pop in as part of the 'scene' - oh what a feel for Impressionist France - I particularly loved finding out that Charles is that figure in the top hat in the background of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party- somehow such a small intimate detail of Charles' life has enlivened that painting for me for ever. htt I have just finished The hare with amber eyes. I thought it was one of the most stunning books I'd ever read. The language is wonderful. The stories in France where Renoir and Proust just pop in as part of the 'scene' - oh what a feel for Impressionist France - I particularly loved finding out that Charles is that figure in the top hat in the background of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party- somehow such a small intimate detail of Charles' life has enlivened that painting for me for ever. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia... Then onto Vienna - and the magnificence of Vienna - and a life so easy and cultured and so European. And Freud around the corner, Wittgenstein hanging in there somewhere ... again making alive for me the whole milieu of Vienna before World War 1. And then the horror of the growth of the nazis, the horror that all happened so quickly - who would know that one week you could go to the opera, and the next have all taken from you and to be sent away on a train to a death camp. To me the most horrific thing was small (like the netsuke the book centres on) - over 600 Jews killed themselves on the night when the Nazis took over in Vienna and went on a rampage of destruction and defilement. That will stay with me for ever - to live in such horror. And in the middle of all the horror -incredible beauty: Anna's saving the netsuke from the nazi confiscation of all Jewish property. And Iggie finding his way to Japan and a Japanese friend - and houses with verandahs and drinks in the evening and opera and ... And the story itself becomes a netsuke - I feel it curl in on itself - a small beautiful thing that can fit into the palm of my hand - where it opens more and more the longer I hold it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    There is so many 'details' in this family memoir written by an illustrious author/artist. The title of this book is a 'netsuke'. It is one of the many such objects, (small valuable Japanese miniatures), that had semi-practical use in Japan when men wore Kimonos. They became objects of interests after 1854 when Japan was open to the west. A large quantity was shipped to Europe and purchased by collectors. Later other emerging impressionist artist caught on. The focus of this family (pained by ant There is so many 'details' in this family memoir written by an illustrious author/artist. The title of this book is a 'netsuke'. It is one of the many such objects, (small valuable Japanese miniatures), that had semi-practical use in Japan when men wore Kimonos. They became objects of interests after 1854 when Japan was open to the west. A large quantity was shipped to Europe and purchased by collectors. Later other emerging impressionist artist caught on. The focus of this family (pained by anti-Semitism), is on the inheritance of a large collection of Japanese netsukes. The author, Edmund de Waal learned about his family while he tries to track how the small treasures landed in his uncles hands. DeWaal is a descendent of the famous and wealthy Ephrussis family, a European dynasty from the 19th century until WW11. As a Jewish family, the Nazis confiscated everything they owned and literally put the family out on the street. The 'netsukes' were able to be successfully hidden due to their small size and the help of a loyal household employee. It was a the brutal destruction in Vienna in 1938 -- I tried to imagine being in the authors shoes --researching his own history --(the wealthy-famous family which he was connected - a lessor known artist himself)... He visited their lives --the rooms they lived...and takes us on the journey with him. Its interesting, though, I can't help but wonder --am I the only person who first learned of 'the artist' Edmund de Waal, from learning of this book? I'm aware I'm 'late' to the party --that this book has been read by many readers before me -- Yet until now --I knew nothing about this story. Its a beautiful book --family history --and history of our time!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dem

    The hare with Amber Eyes is biography and is a wonderful story of 264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings and the unlocking of a story that spans from Paris to Vienna and to Japan as the journey of the netsuke unfolds and that of The prominent and wealthy Jewish Ephrussi Family . I loved the slow build up to the story and the research that went into creating this book. I found the Vienna Ephrussi Family facinating and the story of how the netsuke survived throuhgout the second world war. I loved th The hare with Amber Eyes is biography and is a wonderful story of 264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings and the unlocking of a story that spans from Paris to Vienna and to Japan as the journey of the netsuke unfolds and that of The prominent and wealthy Jewish Ephrussi Family . I loved the slow build up to the story and the research that went into creating this book. I found the Vienna Ephrussi Family facinating and the story of how the netsuke survived throuhgout the second world war. I loved the description of the homes in both Paris and Vienna and felt that Edmund brought these two cities alive in his descriptions. I did find the pictures of the netsuke very disappointing and the quality of pictures very bad and would have appreciated better photographs of the art and the houses as think this would really have been a great way to show of his collection and give the reader a chance to share in these 264 precious carvings. A great book and a real page turner.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Very difficult for me to rate this book. I found a plagiarism (sentence) of George D. Painter's biography of Marcel Proust in de Waal's book, which had me wondering how many other plagiarisms there might be. There is also mention of Peter Altenberg having his mail sent to Café Griensteidl, which is wrong. It was Café Central. This might sound like nitpicking on my part, but when I read a non-fiction book, I want to be able to trust the facts. Also, I wasn't too keen on the literary style of the Very difficult for me to rate this book. I found a plagiarism (sentence) of George D. Painter's biography of Marcel Proust in de Waal's book, which had me wondering how many other plagiarisms there might be. There is also mention of Peter Altenberg having his mail sent to Café Griensteidl, which is wrong. It was Café Central. This might sound like nitpicking on my part, but when I read a non-fiction book, I want to be able to trust the facts. Also, I wasn't too keen on the literary style of the book. But then, it's non-fiction and de Waal is not a poet, but a ceramicist. On the other hand, the premise of the book is original and interesting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    My, that was exquisite. What a unique and gorgeous and informative and intriguing and ... special piece of work. A memoir? (No doubt, the author - a remarkable individual in his own right - embarks on a quest and drags the reader along...) A family history? (Not just any family.... this is the rise and fall of a great (Jewish) dynasty....) A slice of Holocaust history? (and the reminder that, yes, it could have been much worse... but, still, the loss.... and, again, the loss) A deep dive into an My, that was exquisite. What a unique and gorgeous and informative and intriguing and ... special piece of work. A memoir? (No doubt, the author - a remarkable individual in his own right - embarks on a quest and drags the reader along...) A family history? (Not just any family.... this is the rise and fall of a great (Jewish) dynasty....) A slice of Holocaust history? (and the reminder that, yes, it could have been much worse... but, still, the loss.... and, again, the loss) A deep dive into an unfamiliar art/craft? (Art lovers, familiar or unfamiliar with the primary art form - the netsuke, Japanese figurines - will also find a stunning number of gems related to a far wider span of art history in, among other cities, Paris....) A homage, an elegy, an inheritance? (ultimately, yes ... an inheritance....) At times, it's hard to believe the story is non-fiction. But, hey, there's a reason they say truth is stranger than fiction. At another level, this gem of a history is a meditation on objects, nay things, and what things do and don't mean, and how things become mediums, vehicles, capsules, touchstones, or vessels for family histories. Warning: this is not a leisurely read.... frankly, when it's not breathtakingly sad, it's geeky stuff, and the devil (and the joy and the elegance) is in the details. And there are ... so ... many ... details. A distracted reader could ponder the book for ages, following threads here and there.... One of the things that struck me is that the book is so many things, but, nonetheless, avoids coming across as a hodge-podge or digressing into superficiality. (Having said that, I'm sure plenty of readers will criticize the author's efforts to do too much, or to let himself dominate the story. But that's not the way I saw it.... It's highly personal, but appropriately so, and the author's perspective and voice both animate and drive the story....) Indeed, it's like a leisurely personal tour through a remarkably eclectic museum unbound by conventional temporal, thematic, or geographical limitations. What a remarkable experience.

  14. 4 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    A jewelled mirage of a book. The story of a love affair, or rather of several. Can you fall in love with objects? Do they hum and glow with secrets of past times? The key to the Japanese netsuke passed to Edmund de Waal from his great-uncle Iggy is the sensuous pleasure they afford: smooth, small coolness, heavy in the hand for their size. Tactile. Not designed to be gazed at from a respectful distance, but to be picked up and played with. Intimate. Hidden. Edmund de Waal follows the trace of th A jewelled mirage of a book. The story of a love affair, or rather of several. Can you fall in love with objects? Do they hum and glow with secrets of past times? The key to the Japanese netsuke passed to Edmund de Waal from his great-uncle Iggy is the sensuous pleasure they afford: smooth, small coolness, heavy in the hand for their size. Tactile. Not designed to be gazed at from a respectful distance, but to be picked up and played with. Intimate. Hidden. Edmund de Waal follows the trace of the collection of 264 netsuke from Belle Époque Paris to Vienna, to Tunbridge Wells, to Tokyo. What he finds, and what he doesn't find along the way. It is also the story of how he searched, the doubts and obsessions and worries that accompany his research. It is a heady concoction of memoir, history, art, aesthetics and meditation on our relationship with our personal past and with material objects of that past. It is moving and quite entrancing. Like Sebald, but with a narrative thread.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    This is a wonderful blending of history, biography with a sprinkling of art. The Ephrussi were a prominent Jewish family who originated from Odessa Russia. Part of the family emigrated to Paris and another part to Vienna. Along the way they collected beautiful things including a collection of Netsuke which are miniature decorative figures used to hold a money case in traditional Japanese dress. The netsuke were originally collected by De Waal’s great great uncle Charles and were one of the few tr This is a wonderful blending of history, biography with a sprinkling of art. The Ephrussi were a prominent Jewish family who originated from Odessa Russia. Part of the family emigrated to Paris and another part to Vienna. Along the way they collected beautiful things including a collection of Netsuke which are miniature decorative figures used to hold a money case in traditional Japanese dress. The netsuke were originally collected by De Waal’s great great uncle Charles and were one of the few treasures to escape Nazi theft. I learned so much history from this book especially the continued persecution of Judaism and Jewish people culminating in World War Two. De Waal describes how tactile the netsuke are. He often had one in his pocket on his journey around the globe researching his family. His great uncle told how he and his brother and sister would take them out of their case and play with them while their beautiful, glamorous mother dressed for a night out in Viennese society. De Waal writes beautifully. He brings the times and people alive along with the art they loved…and then lost. By the way if anyone lives near or will be visiting the Los Angeles area there is an incredible collection of netsuke at the Los Angeles County Art Museum housed in the Japanese Pavilion.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Fionnuala

    I began this a couple of days ago and I'm entranced. The Hare with Amber Eyes is the history of a collection of miniature 18th Japanese figurines called netsuki and the biography of the various owners of the collection. Already, the first half of the book is proving to be art history of the best kind, accessible and beautifully written, the kind which makes the reader pause and reflect, the kind which urges the reader to find out more about the period, the kind which inspires her to pick up thos I began this a couple of days ago and I'm entranced. The Hare with Amber Eyes is the history of a collection of miniature 18th Japanese figurines called netsuki and the biography of the various owners of the collection. Already, the first half of the book is proving to be art history of the best kind, accessible and beautifully written, the kind which makes the reader pause and reflect, the kind which urges the reader to find out more about the period, the kind which inspires her to pick up those glossy coffee table books and to go through them finally, not just to view the prints but to garner additional information from the text. This is therapy for the soul.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    NO SPOILERS!!! ETA: I changed this to two stars. For most of this book I struggled to keep turning the pages. I think it is wrong to judge an entire book by the last 100 pages. Back to two stars, which reflects my feeling for the majority of the book. ********************************************* On completion: So how can I complain so much about a book and then give it 3 stars? (See ETA!) The answer is simple, this is how I felt when I finished the book. I have been discussing this book with Amy NO SPOILERS!!! ETA: I changed this to two stars. For most of this book I struggled to keep turning the pages. I think it is wrong to judge an entire book by the last 100 pages. Back to two stars, which reflects my feeling for the majority of the book. ********************************************* On completion: So how can I complain so much about a book and then give it 3 stars? (See ETA!) The answer is simple, this is how I felt when I finished the book. I have been discussing this book with Amy Henry. I have a link to her review in the comments below. If you are considering whether to read this book, I suggest you look at our dicussion under her review. She is the one that kept me reading the book when I was about to dump it. I am glad I didn't. The ending is tremendous. Starting with part three and WW2, then when the reader follows the collection to Japan and finally the brief conclusion of the book, these last 100 odd pages are wonderful. Absolutely. After reading this book i really am not interested in just looking at a netsuke, but also in holding one or several. They are meant to be held. They are not fragile. WW2 and its impact on the family was dramatic and engaging. The character study of the individuals was well done in the latter part of the book. Life in Japan immediately after the war was fascinating. Learning about Iggy and Jiro and the trip to Odessa, all of this drew me in. I loved the thoughts on what we keep secret and what we reveal. I loved how the author made the collection accessible to his own children so the stories about each figure could commence once again. Can a little more than the last 100 pages save a book? I am giving it three stars, because by the end I liked it a lot. I had planned on two stars, but have bumped it up to three. The book offered too much interesting information to only give one star. Although it was interesting, much of the book was not engaging, and that is why I was planning on two stars. ******************************************** Through page 207: Yes, the book has definitely improved. About halway through, when the collection was given to Victor and his wife, living in Vienna, that is when the collection of "objects" came to life. The children in the family came to play with them and invent stories about them. They stopped being things; they became part of the familily's life. Then WW1 came and history was drawn into this family's life. Yes, I like the book now, but it has taken too dam long to get to this point! I really didn't like Charles. For him the netsuke was merely a collection of valuable objects. ******************************** Through page 157: The book begins to offer what I am looking for when Charles gives the collection to his cousin Victor as a wedding gift. The collection moves to Vienna. Here, in Vienna, the reader gets to meet a family with women and children. You learn of the summers spent in Kövecses, Czechoslovakia. It is amusing because Patrick Leigh Fermor stays with them at the summer house. I have read enjoyed Fermor's book on his travels acroos Europe by foot. (See A Time of Gifts ).There is, as before, a lot of description, now about Vienna rather than Paris.The reader gets not just a description of the architecture of the buildings and the layout of the streets, but also the whole lifestyle and culture of these cities at the end of the 19th century. Of course, anti-Semitism is rife. The prose is filled with detailed historical facts. Be aware oif this when you pick up the book. *************************************************** Through page 90: I am having serious trouble with this book. Yesterday, I decided to dump it. Today I decided I will continue. Let me explain why. This book, so far, is like reading a dry art history book. The author has decided to investigate everything related to the netsuke collection which he has inherited. Everything. The collection was purchased in Paris by his great uncle Charles. In fact, he bought it in one go, not peice by piece. He wanted the "collection". I wanted to discover the personalities and traits of the people involved in the story. More than that, I want to discover what makes each of these characters tick. What I have learned about Charles is that he is an art critic, an art collector and he knew all the right people, although his Jewish heritage is beginning to cause troble. He was great friends with many of Impressionism's artists - Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, Monet, Degas and Manet... Yes, and others. However the reader is told who painted what and who had an exhibition in the Salon and that the back of Charle's head is to be found in that painting..... The author practically attempts to find every painting in the room where Charles kept the netsuke collection. He states where the given painting is now located. He brings one netsuke, the hare with amber eyes, with him on all these searchings to reunite it with the things that had all been together in Charles showroom. I found these chapters extremely dry. On one occasion I felt the author delivered what I was looking for. Charles bought Manet's painting of a bundle of asparagus on a table. You will recognize the painting when it is shown in the book. What is amusing and interesting, because it states something about the personality of Manet, is when Manet comes to Charles with another painting. This painting he gives to Charles. It is one asparagus stalk, and his comment is this one fell out on the way. It was dropped. I am not quoting, That is the gist. This is fun. This says something about Manet, who he was as a person. This is the kind of information I am looking for. Such information is presented, but not often enough. So then I went and read the review of a GR freind who has read this book. She says the book will tell me about the personalities of the people involved. She says the book is not about a collection of objects but about the people tied to this collection. This is why I chose to read the book. I have read about 1/3 of the book. I think this should have been made evident by now, but I am willing to give it another chance. I do not doubt my friend's views. Maybe she simply reacts differently than I do. Maybe I simply have not read enough. We all are different; obviously, given all the rave reviews of this book, others feel differently. Some people like dry history books. Some people don't mind if it takes many pages to really get into a book, to discover what it is about. I hope by continuing I will come to like this book. I forgot to mention that Proust most likely based his character Charles Swann on ....guess who? That is right - Charles Ephrussi! ********************************************* Through 51 pages: At the top of this box it says: "What do I think?" Well, I am curious to now more about Japanese art. I love how the Japanese people value the beauty of every day articles. They make everything one uses, from toothpicks to wrapped presents to grillwork at the base of a tree worth looking at, looking at carefully because it is so beautiful. Then I am also interested in this wealthy Jewish family. It starts with Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), born in Odessa. This family is on a par with the famed Rothschild family. They lived in Odessa, Paris, Vienna, Japan.... Right off the bat, I am a bit disgusted with the dilettante life of Charles. It is he who began the collection. It is all a bit too poshy for me, but the author, the great nephew of Charles, also questions the extravagant lifestyle. I will have to see how I react to the family members, but I am interested in the places, the history and beauty of the netsuke themselves. Art is something that should be felt - holding a perfect bowl, rolling the netsuke figure in your hand. The netsuke were used in Japan as toggles to fasten a bag onto the sash of clothing. These were begun in the Edo era. They were teeny statues to be used daily, to have near your body, to be felt, touched and pulled, and they had to be beautiful. It is good that I am reading this as a paperback because you must continually look at the family tree at the front of the book. There are photos interspersed throughout. I suggest you look at Wikipedia to see how beautiful these netsukes are! What daily utensil in Japan isn't beautiful, or well designed? And I think the story will be become suspenseful when the collection must be hidden during WW2. A maid plays a large role, but I do not know more than that. I have just begun. I just hope I do not feel antipathy for the family members. I hope I don't get annoyed by the teeny font in the book..... And I am now adding an excerpt to show you how this author writes and what I mean about the poshy lifestyle: Before the netsuke comes a collection of thirty-three black-and-gold lacquer boxes. It was a collection to place with Charle's other collections in his apartment at the Hôtel Ephrussi, something to sit next to his burgundy Renaissance hangings and his pale Donatello sculpture in marble. Charles and Louise put his collection together from Sichel's chaotic house of treasures. It was a stellar group of seventeenth-century lacquers, as good as any in Europe: to choose them they must have been regular visitors to Sichel's. And very pleasing for me as a potter, alongside these lacquers,Charles also had a sixteenth-century stoneware covered jar from Bizen, the Japanese pottery village in which I studied when I was seventeen, excited to finally get my passionate hands on those simple tactile tea-bowls. In "Les Lacques Japonaise au Trocadero", a long essay published in the "Gazette" in 1878, Charles describes the five or six vitrines full of lacquer on exhibition at the Trocadéro in Paris. This is his fullest writing about Japanese art. As elsewhere, he is in turn academic (he is exercised about dating) , descriptive and ultimately lyrical about what he sees in front of him. (page 51) For my tastes, Charlie is annoyingly uppity, covetous and an art critic to boot! I personally have a hard time reading critical essays on art. Art should emotionally move the observer. I do not want to be told what to think. The author, who inherited the collection, is a potter. He too know that art is felt, seen and even heard individually, one person at a time. In a garden you see and smell and hear the "garden". All of one's senses create a picture. However, the author has set out to discover the path the netsuke collection has taken. Here is where we must begin.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shauna

    'How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten?' The author claims, toward the end of this book, to 'no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about 'How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten?' The author claims, toward the end of this book, to 'no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.' For anyone who might be put off, this is not text on Japanese sculpture. The netsuke, although beautifully detailed, are simply the glue that binds the story together. De Waal, upon inheriting the collection of tiny sculptures, feels he has also been handed a responsibility, both to them and the people who have owned them. The bones of their incredible journey he knew from Iggie, his great-uncle. It took close to two years for De Waal to get the biography to where it is now. I'm grateful. De Waal is a fine storyteller, and this is an exceptional story. My favorite section was always going to be Part One, Paris 1871-1899. Here De Waal breathes life into Impressionist Paris. Through Charles, the instigator of the collection of netsuke (and, I think, Edmund's great-great-great-uncle) we are given a window in to what it was to be in the Impressionist inner-circle, we get a feel for who they were as people. He was a 'sitter, friend and patron…he is there', and through him, so are we. One instance I enjoyed was when, 'Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his small still lifes, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: 'This seems to have slipped from the bundle.' Charles, it turns out, is actually the man in the top hat in the 'Luncheon of the Boating Party'. It may be the art geek in me, but it feels as though I have an intimate friend who's a celebrity. I found the anti-Semitism of Paris, so long before Hitler, shocking. As I said, we get a feel for who they all were as people-good and bad. Renoir, for one, was an ignorant prick disliked the Jews. De Waal wonders, as do I, how they managed to live in the conditions they did; Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust's novels remembers of his grandfather…' Of course, this is only a small part of the story. The story spans over four generations and two World Wars, in a sweeping, extremely moving tale of family, art and history. 'I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name. It reads 'Israel'. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them: 'Israel' for the men, 'Sara' for the women. I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.' And, if you're anything like me, there will be a tear or two in places. That's not to say that The Hare With Amber Eyes is a 'weepy' novel, but we follow this family through their highest and lowest moments so if you find yourself needing to put the book down and have a little cry, it's okay. Let it out. Finally, knowing now how the netsuke survived World War Two, I find the author's dedication particularly sweet. Good on you Edmund.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    This book is Edmund De Waal's stubbornly pursued search for the history of a branch of his own family, namely the Jewish-Ukrainian Ephrussi. The starting point for his quest is the collection of 264 small Japanese objects that he inherited from a great-uncle. They are ‘netsukes’, small figures made from the most diverse materials (wood, ivory, amber, etc) which - as befits Japanese art tradition - express a brief moment in the life of those figures. For De Waal it is mainly the material aspect, This book is Edmund De Waal's stubbornly pursued search for the history of a branch of his own family, namely the Jewish-Ukrainian Ephrussi. The starting point for his quest is the collection of 264 small Japanese objects that he inherited from a great-uncle. They are ‘netsukes’, small figures made from the most diverse materials (wood, ivory, amber, etc) which - as befits Japanese art tradition - express a brief moment in the life of those figures. For De Waal it is mainly the material aspect, the tangibility, the feeling in the hand and the fingers, the luster and patina on it, that fascinates him. I can imagine that this is different for other people and it is rather the expression of the figure at that moment that appeals: the hare that scares up, the turtles who want to get over each other as quickly as possible, the fisherman who is unhappy because of his small catch, and so on. Regardless of those figures, it is the family history of the Ephrussi that is paramount in this book. De Waal draws his great-grandparents, grand-uncles and -aunts and the environment in which they lived with many details. And that is quite interesting, because the family history mainly covers the period 1870-1950, a period of both heights and lows in European history. We see the Ephrussi's fortune originating in Odessa (now Ukraine), and swarming out to Paris and Vienna. Especially the portrait of Charles Ephrussi, the dandy who frequented the environment of the Goncourts and Proust in Paris, captivates the imagination. And in Vienna the family first experienced the summit of its prosperity and fortune, as one of those typical Central European Jewish generations who did everything to assimilate in the high society of their time, but then were horribly dragged down by the gulf of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. As silent witnesses, hidden away behind a glass display case, the collection of netsukes (originally bought by Charles) followed those swirling events. They even knew to survive the horrors thanks to a modest Austrian housekeeper, that hid them. After the war, after a detour via home country Japan, they ended up with Edmund, himself a well-known ceramist. That is the charming thing about this book, that these small, almost insignificant objects (actually meant to hang on a belt), in contrast to people, held out in the whirlwind of history. It’s a lesson in modesty, and to a certain extent this conclusion leaves a sour aftertaste after reading this book. Because the portrait clearly shows that the Ephrussi family was all but occupied with the world and people around them: one half focused on the collection of an immeasurable fortune, the other on spending it by building up an impressive art collection. Edmund De Waal isn’t an historian, so perhaps we didn’t get the full picture of the way of living of this family, but I can’t help thinking that their self-centeredness was one of the indirect causes of their fall. (2.5 stars)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    Never before have I encountered the word vitrine so often in such a short period, and I hope that I don’t come across it again for a long time. I suppose that’s what I deserve for straying away from the world of fiction. However, The Hare with the Amber Eyes is a book which has won many accolades and is loved by many – I suspect, therefore, that the problem lies somewhere within me rather than with the book. It is by no means a badly written or uninteresting story. Edmund de Waal explores the hi Never before have I encountered the word vitrine so often in such a short period, and I hope that I don’t come across it again for a long time. I suppose that’s what I deserve for straying away from the world of fiction. However, The Hare with the Amber Eyes is a book which has won many accolades and is loved by many – I suspect, therefore, that the problem lies somewhere within me rather than with the book. It is by no means a badly written or uninteresting story. Edmund de Waal explores the history of a collection of netsuke which he has inherited, in the course of which he traces the history of his Jewish ancestors from 19th century Odessa through fin de siècle Paris, secessionist Vienna, two world wars, Nazi persecution and American-occupied Japan. At the core is a very moving story about how the netsuke survived the second world war and returned to the family afterwards, and perhaps the book was worth it for this anecdote alone. Some other parts were moderately interesting, but I found my attention waning at times and the netsuke themselves were insufficiently interesting or varied to hold the whole thing together. Towards the end I was speed reading to see if there would be any other interesting episodes. There weren’t, though I am sure many would beg to differ!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Henk

    Just followed an online reading about Netsuke and now really looking forward to picking this up as a non-fiction read in 2021

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kavita

    I came across The Hare with Amber Eyes in a list of books about Austria. I suppose you could call it that if you stretch facts a little. But the focus of the book is on the author's privileged, clueless, boring family. The wealthy Ephrussi family originally came from Russia and settled all over Europe. This particular branch follows the exploits of the family settled in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The book is supposed to be about the journey of the netsuke (Japanese figurines) that E I came across The Hare with Amber Eyes in a list of books about Austria. I suppose you could call it that if you stretch facts a little. But the focus of the book is on the author's privileged, clueless, boring family. The wealthy Ephrussi family originally came from Russia and settled all over Europe. This particular branch follows the exploits of the family settled in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The book is supposed to be about the journey of the netsuke (Japanese figurines) that Edmund de Waal inherited from his family. These netsuke are beautiful works of art plundered from a Japan reeling from civil war by Europeans who bought up everything cheap, and then called it their own. This fact is nowhere acknowledged by the author and he does not even have the basic decency to donate the damn things back to Japan. In fact, here is how he excuses himself. ‘Don’t you think those netsuke should stay in Japan?’ said a stern neighbour of mine in London. And I find I am shaking as I answer, because this matters. I tell her that there are plenty of netsuke in the world, sitting in velvet-lined trays in dealers’ cabinets off Bond Street or Madison Avenue, Keizergracht or the Ginza. Then I get a bit side-tracked onto the Silk Road, and then onto Alexander the Great’s coins still being in circulation in the Hindu Kush in the nineteenth century. I tell her about travelling with my partner Sue in Ethiopia, and finding an old Chinese jar covered in dust in a market town and trying to work out how it had got there. No, I answer. Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters. And then ... I want our three kids to have the chance to get to know the netsuke as those children did a hundred years ago. But not those Japanese children from the families who had to sell off those netsuke ... In fact, de Waal talks about his uncle buying more treasured artifacts from the impoverished Japanese (again!) at a throwaway price after the Second World War. How shameless can you possibly get? Weren't your family members just subject to the same humiliation? Why would you do that to others? At least, pay the right price for what you basically stole! And you dare to write a book about your family's avarice?! Anyway, putting outrage aside and moving on. The book is not even about the netsuke ultimately. It's about de Waal's boring family history. The most well-known thing about the Ephrussis was their banking genius. But de Waal does not even concentrate on that bit. He just proses on and on about family members who buy stuff and lounge around changing clothes a million times a day. The first two parts were basically nothing but 'look, how rich my family was!'. The third part of the book got slightly interesting. The Anschluss happened and suddenly Jews everywhere feared for their existence. The author writes eloquently about the humiliations forced on Jews. I found myself getting involved in the story here as de Waal talks about the general situation. However, I found that I still couldn't care less that his great-grandmother could no longer change her dress five times a day. The Nazi takeover of Austria impacted a lot of people in such horrific ways that I found myself unable to care about this privileged family whining about their lost possessions. I am also flummoxed that more is not known about Anna, the maid who saved these netsuke. All we know is that she dressed up the insufferably boring Emmy (de Waal's great-grandmother) and saved the netsuke from the Nazis. I wonder why she was not given them by the Ephrussis after the war to help her in her old age? Was she ever rewarded for her bravery and loyalty? Did these jerks even care? The one character I genuinely would loved to have learned more about was de Waal's grandmother, Elisabeth. At a time when women were tied to the house, Elisabeth broke all glass ceilings and became a lawyer. She was one of the first women to enter the University of Vienna. Her accomplishments flare up time and again in the book and I enjoyed those bits. However, she did not play a major part in the narrative. This family biography is not as compelling as it could have been. If it had only focused on the achievements of the family members instead of endlessly going on about the random stuff they used to do and then could no longer do, it would have been more interesting and generated more sympathy. I found the entire netsuke in European hands angle to be problematic to begin with, so I guess this never was a book for me.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    Beautifully evocative and elegiac, a history of a family. You know it will not end well, as this family is Jewish and the history begins a few generations before WW II, but de Waal is determined to bring the family to life through his descriptions of their homes, their idiosyncrasies, and above all their passion for art. De Waal traveled to all the places this family had lived, and did his best to walk in the spaces they walked, look out the windows they did, and endeavor to imagine their lives. Beautifully evocative and elegiac, a history of a family. You know it will not end well, as this family is Jewish and the history begins a few generations before WW II, but de Waal is determined to bring the family to life through his descriptions of their homes, their idiosyncrasies, and above all their passion for art. De Waal traveled to all the places this family had lived, and did his best to walk in the spaces they walked, look out the windows they did, and endeavor to imagine their lives. It builds slowly as he paints in the family's background, and how Charles Ephrussi collected the netsuke that bind the entire narrative together, but as he moves toward 1900 there are more records, and the individuals take on shape and color and personality. This is also the story, in a microcosm, of how Jews gained the right to do business and even own land in the latter 1800s, some (like the Ephrussi) becoming quite wealthy. The Ephrussi patriarchy had enough clout to call a halt to the latest Russian pogrom by threatening to effect the price of grain. So the pogrom was halted, but the fallout was an increase of antisemitic resentment. But this is not just another Holocaust tale, harrowing as that might be. It is also a thoughtful, painterly, sometimes elegiac examination of how human beings relate to things, especially art things. Like the netsuke. That sets up the scene for the painfully vivid account of Austria's fall to the Nazis, and the horrors of having your house invaded, first by angry young men with their new swastika armbands who bully their way in just to smash things and take what they want. But when the Gestapo comes, the real horror sets in, as they deliberately, with a semblance of legal exactitude, proceed to catalog everything they are stealing from this family. The story of the netsuke binds everything together, as de Waal brings the story up to the present. Near the end, one of his neighbors says, "Don't you think those netsuke should stay in Japan?" No, I answer. Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    This is a delicate work detailing rather amazing figurines in some of recent history's more nefarious climates. The settings include Paris of the Dreyfus Affair and Vienna of the early 20th Century, culminating in the terrible Anschluss of 1938. De Waal, himself an artist, is peering backward into time. He explores his family's success, constantly aware of the menace which surrounds such. Pieces of tiny sculptures lie at the heart of this quest. The pieces are Japanese in origin. The author explo This is a delicate work detailing rather amazing figurines in some of recent history's more nefarious climates. The settings include Paris of the Dreyfus Affair and Vienna of the early 20th Century, culminating in the terrible Anschluss of 1938. De Waal, himself an artist, is peering backward into time. He explores his family's success, constantly aware of the menace which surrounds such. Pieces of tiny sculptures lie at the heart of this quest. The pieces are Japanese in origin. The author explores the means by which they came to Europe and his family's possession. Events are described with wry appreciation. Despite the growing tension there is detachment at play. There are few surprises in the narrative. An appreciation for family and ancestry is galvenized as the journey returns home. As does a cultured appreciation of the diminutive masterpieces.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gail

    If you love history and art—and the melding of the two—that I think you will find it impossible not to be taken with Edmund de Waal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes." To be fair, this is high-brow storytelling. If "The DaVinci Code" is the McDonald's equivalent of a book that incorporates these two themes, then "Amber Eyes" is the four-course French meal complete with palette-cleansing sorbet. The book is a biography of de Waal's inherited collection of more than 200 pieces of Japanese netsuke, small c If you love history and art—and the melding of the two—that I think you will find it impossible not to be taken with Edmund de Waal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes." To be fair, this is high-brow storytelling. If "The DaVinci Code" is the McDonald's equivalent of a book that incorporates these two themes, then "Amber Eyes" is the four-course French meal complete with palette-cleansing sorbet. The book is a biography of de Waal's inherited collection of more than 200 pieces of Japanese netsuke, small carved figurines of ivory and wood (nowadays you might see knock-offs of these in pawn shops and flea markets but the real deal is, as we learn here, worth a small fortune). The netsuke tie together the story of de Waal's family history, as the author follows what happens to the pieces over the course of 140 years by sharing vivid details of the inhabitants of the three rooms in which the netsuke found their home. The first is the Parisian study of Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and writer who hung with the likes of Impressionist painters Renoir and Degas (and who owned an enormous collection of their art at one time). The second is the Viennese dressing room of de Waal's great-great grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi at a time when the Austrian capital is being torn apart by war. The third, the Tokyo apartment of Emmy's son (and de Waal's uncle) Iggie. The way de Waal writes this book lets us imagine ourselves in each of these time periods while, at the same, giving us insight into the hours upon hours he spent in French and Austrian and London libraries, searching for his family's past in the tiny type of newspaper articles and society columns. de Waal is a a ceramic artist with major installations in Britain's V&A museum and Tate Britain who also happens to be one hell of a fine storyteller. I found myself enthralled reading about the lavish lifestyle of his ancestors and his impressions as he introduced himself to each of the great homes of residence where they lived (one example is the Palais Ephrussi -- just IMAGINE your great-grandparents living here! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais_E...) A few of my favorite scenes and/or commentary in the book: • de Waal's description of the Parisian salon scene of the late 1800s -- imagine sitting in the parlors of well-to society women, in the company of legends like Proust and Renoir and Roudin, talking about art and culture! • de Waal on his study of Charles in Paris: " It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people's annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumeshoe and wait to see who comes out ... And I find that I have fallen for Charles. He is a passionate scholar. He is well dressed and good at art history and dogged in research. What a great and unlikely trinity of attributes to have, I think aspirationally. • de Waal's detailing of the rich society life of Emmy von Ephrussi (the hours she'd spend every day preparing to go out for society events; three wardrobe changes every day!) • There is a great passage in which de Waal talks about a series of letters exchanged between Emmy's oldest daughter, Elisabeth (the author's grandmother) and a famous Swiss poet of the 1920s -- a line from one of his letters that I really really loved about Elisabeth's joint ventures in law and poetry: "I find the great contrast between your two occupations positive; the more diverse the life of the mind, the better the chances are that your inspiration will be protected, the inspiration which cannot be predicted, that which is motivated from within." • Reading about de Waal's family stuck in Austria when World War II broke out was heartbreaking but I couldn't pull my attention away from the storyline, knowing this all really happened

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lemar

    The Hare With Amber Eyes is the beautifully wrought, poetic work of a caretaker. Edmund De Waal, an artist, uses his empathy with objects to reanimate a world of lost time. He employs his tender yet uncompromising eye and tactile senses in letting both lovely Japanese netsuke (tiny, detailed sculpture), and otherwise dry and dusty ledgers and lists tell a fascinating story. De Waal has undertaken the task of tracing the history of 264 netsuke he inherited from his great-uncle Iggie. He lets the j The Hare With Amber Eyes is the beautifully wrought, poetic work of a caretaker. Edmund De Waal, an artist, uses his empathy with objects to reanimate a world of lost time. He employs his tender yet uncompromising eye and tactile senses in letting both lovely Japanese netsuke (tiny, detailed sculpture), and otherwise dry and dusty ledgers and lists tell a fascinating story. De Waal has undertaken the task of tracing the history of 264 netsuke he inherited from his great-uncle Iggie. He lets the journey carry him to far away places and eras which live again through his scholarship and ability to let the research take prominence. He allows himself to become the story only when the journey demands it, when to shy away from this completely would detract. This book is a personal story so I want to include an account of how it came into my life. My wife and two almost grown sons went to Europe this summer to see the sights but also to reconnect with our past. My father's family, Jews from Stuttgart, escaped the Nazi terror in 1935. Having been jailed, my grandfather Lothar (given a German name) and his wife, the partly Jewish Elisabeth had to leave my father, age 4, behind with Elisabeth's sister Eva and her children. My dad stayed there for two years until they were able to get a visa and the money to send him, alone at age six, to New York. Lothar and Elisabeth were able to get visas only because his brother, a novelist and poet now somewhat forgotten, Bruno Frank had emigrated the day after the Reichstag fire and the book burnings that followed. He got work in Hollywood (notably writing the adaptation of the Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton). This enabled him to secure visas for his brother and younger sister Ruth. Visas were horribly hard to come by, Enrico Fermi's wife put it well when she noted how those with some sort of social cache were deemed desirable. "The State Department were terrible snobs", is how she put it. Once in America, the grateful family spoke only English. Back in Germany Eva and her kids were able to survive. At one point her uncle Ernst was identified as having Jewish heritage by a colleague. He was valuable to his office and the boss reportedly said, "I decide who is a Jew". Eva's youngest daughter is alive and well and living in Hamburg. It is she, Almuth, who we visited this summer of 2015. This delightful woman, translator, painter, former single mother (is that role ever former?), bon vivant, took us around Hamburg and did not shy away from discussing the Nazi period. She talked about how her husband had done his dissertation on Jewish writers in Germany after having met my grandfather who returned fairly often. "He was his first Jew", is how she put it. Even now there is a bit of adrenaline, fascination, flurry of emotion that the word Jew brings up in mainland Europe that is about four times its strength in the U.S. As we were leaving Almuth gave me a paperback book, The Hare With Amber Eyes. "You need to read this". Edmund De Waal has a successful career making pottery; he undertook an emotionally exhausting job of care-taking, giving his ancestors their due. At one point he writes, "I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things". His accomplishments in this book are many, among them: he has set the record of the Ephrussi family, riddled with lies, straight; and he has illuminated a path for all interested people who seek to learn from the past to follow. When I go to a historic place I often try to imagine what it was like in that other time. De Waal demonstrates how to look carefully at an object, how to run one's fingers lightly over it then employ intelligence and empathy to read what is there. The very last word in the Acknowledgements section at the end touched me deeply. The works of literature I love most teach me how to be more fully alive. This book is one of those works.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Beginning this book was like being upgraded to business class on an airplane. I'd just finished a so-so book, and suddenly I opened this to find lush prose, historical scope and a great vocabulary. Thank you. The reader can tell how close this story is to the writer’s heart - tracing his paternal genealogy through the turbulence of Europe in the 1900s, in which his ancestors gained and lost a fortune. De Waal choses to track a collection of netsuke, small Japanese ceramics, from the time his grea Beginning this book was like being upgraded to business class on an airplane. I'd just finished a so-so book, and suddenly I opened this to find lush prose, historical scope and a great vocabulary. Thank you. The reader can tell how close this story is to the writer’s heart - tracing his paternal genealogy through the turbulence of Europe in the 1900s, in which his ancestors gained and lost a fortune. De Waal choses to track a collection of netsuke, small Japanese ceramics, from the time his great great uncle Charles begins collecting them to the time he inherits them. At times the story is touching and even exciting, not for the netsuke, but for the tumult they survive. Personally, however, I found there wasn’t always enough overlap. The netsuke provide a story peg but no great revelation. I felt the writer, too, was aware of that, and tried to over-explain them back into the saga. I didn’t feel that really succeeded. The pages spent on Uncle Iggie, born Austrian turned American turned expatriate in Japan, offered more explanation than emotional depth, and lost my interest, for example. And, as a genealogy, many of the ancestors are hard to get close to. Sure great great uncle Charles is a dandy who mixes with enormously great French artists and offers a picture of an era. That should be interesting, but somehow it isn’t. Again, it’s because it feels like an explication - with particular details - but with little emotional investment on the part of the reader. It’s not until the Nazis arrive and you feel there’s something at stake that the story achieves something more than showing cardboard figures spending money on art or clothes or summer homes. It’s not until the writer himself has some personal knowledge of the people he’s talking about that they gain shape. I’m glad I read the book and the family story was a rich one, but it needed more life.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Acacia

    My father was one of those people who always found things on the ground. Maybe it came from being over 6' tall, but he was always looking at where he was walking. He'd find money in parking lots but mostly what he found were rocks. When he would go hunting with my brother, he would find little stones that he would pick up and bring home. They were never anything special, no gems or geological artifacts, just stones that felt good in the hand. He'd slip them into his pocket, reaching in occasiona My father was one of those people who always found things on the ground. Maybe it came from being over 6' tall, but he was always looking at where he was walking. He'd find money in parking lots but mostly what he found were rocks. When he would go hunting with my brother, he would find little stones that he would pick up and bring home. They were never anything special, no gems or geological artifacts, just stones that felt good in the hand. He'd slip them into his pocket, reaching in occasionally too feel the shape of them. When he died while sleeping on the couch, he had a stone in his pocket, and I have it now. Like him, I am always drawn to the tactile nature of objects, from the things I hold every day to paintings and sculpture. I never find money on the ground, but I do still pick up stones. I think that my love of the touch of things is probably why I became an art historian. Granted, museums never let you touch things (I used to stand with my hands behind my back to keep from getting myself into trouble,) but if a painting moved me, I would stare for hours at the brushstrokes and the texture of the paint. I would try to feel the works with my eyes. Edmund de Waal is a potter, probably one of the most tactile of art practices. From my little experience throwing pots, it is something that is entirely done by touch. You have to wedge the clay until it feels ready to throw, determine if the clay has enough moisture (or too much) as you shape the form between your hands. When he inherited a large heirloom collection of of Japanese ivory and wood carvings called netsuke from his great uncle, he became interested in their history, not as valuable art, but as objects that were touched, admired, and had a history of their own. His research traces the history of his family, the Ephrussis, whose fortunes began in Odessa, Russia and ended up becoming a very wealthy and powerful international empire through trading grain and banking. It is his great-great-uncle Charles Ephrussis, an art connoisseur, historian and collector who first purchases the collection of 264 netsuke at the end of the nineteenth century. Within his tale of opulent living and collecting comes the underlying darkness that continually haunts the Ephrissis family, their Jewishness. Beneath every success is the continuous reminder of "otherness" of the family, the only recent granting of citizenship and land ownership to Jews, the lightning-fast anti-semitism that arises over the least mis-step. A particularly ugly example comes from Auguste Renoir, who had long benefited from Charles' support as patron and friend. Entering Charles' apartment and seeing a recent purchase of a Gustav Moureau painting, writes to his friends of Charles' "Jew attraction" to the gold in Moureau's works. The tension and fear grows steadily as the netsuke pass to Charles' cousins Viktor and Emmy in Vienna. There they become private objects is Emmy's dressing room, where her children hold and play with them as she dresses, and where each can become the starting point of one of Emmy's stories. But this is mere background to the developing nightmare in Europe, as Victor and Emmy's world, and the Ephrussis empire, is destroyed by the Nazi's annexation of Austria and "Aryianization" policies. I found myself terrified for them (and thinking of my own family who, while not wealthy, lost everything, including their lives, to the Nazis) and waiting with dread for what would happen next. When the Nazis seized their home and property, it was only after they escaped Vienna that I thought about the netsuke. Amazingly, the family's devoted maid, thinking they were toys, smuggled them out of the home in the folds of her skirt and kept them safe in her mattress. When de Waal's grandmother returned to Vienna to see what could be retrieved, the maid gave her the netsuke that she protected through the entire war. This, to me was the climax of the narrative, the miracle that kept this one legacy in the family. Each little object was safe and protected in the intimate space of a gentile woman who loved the jewish family she served for so many years and wanted to save the children's toys. Frankly, the rest of the tale felt like an extended denouement. His grandmother moves the family to England and de Waal's great-uncle is given the netsuke when his company moves him to Japan, where they resume their role as art in a collector's vitrine to be touched and admired. The pieces' Japanese lineage emerges as they learn the names of the artists who produced them and his great-uncle lives a comfortable, smart life in Japan with a longtime partner, Buddhist, gay, and safe. When he dies, the netsuke pass to de Waal. Throughout his tale is woven his own story as he researches the history of his family. de Waal tells us of his reactions to reading virulent anti-Semitic writings that mentioned or illustrated the experiences of the Ephrussis family. He describes the lure of tangential explorations and threaten the work of any researcher and his father's tendency to magically produce more letters, journals and photographs he'd forgotten he had. He also talks about his grandmother's shift toward the Anglican church and his siblings' entry into the clergy in England. In the end felt a little like his great-uncle and grandmother escaped their "otherness" by adopting the faiths and cultures of their new homes, an otherness that is part of de Waal's heritage, but not his current life. Even the netsuke is away from home, and sitting, waiting to be touched, in a vitrine in London.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    This was a fascinating and heartbreaking story. The author is inspired to take a deep look into his family’s history after seeing the netsuke collection in his great-uncle’s house in Japan. Acquired in 19th century France, they are later transferred to Vienna as a wedding gift. The author’s extremely wealthy Jewish family is targeted by the Nazi’s in WWII and most of the family fortune is lost. Except for the netsuke, which are bravely saved by the family maid and returned to the family after th This was a fascinating and heartbreaking story. The author is inspired to take a deep look into his family’s history after seeing the netsuke collection in his great-uncle’s house in Japan. Acquired in 19th century France, they are later transferred to Vienna as a wedding gift. The author’s extremely wealthy Jewish family is targeted by the Nazi’s in WWII and most of the family fortune is lost. Except for the netsuke, which are bravely saved by the family maid and returned to the family after the war.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Al Bità

    The edition I read was loaned to me by my friend Wayne to whom it had been gifted as a Christmas present. It is the handsomely produced Illustrated Edition by Chatto and Windus. I dearly wanted to like this work, particularly after all the glowing reviews and its international popularity, but ultimately I was unable to find the sweet-spot that would bring it all together. I did not dislike the work; but I did not like it either. Trying to work out why has not been an easy task. There is no doubt The edition I read was loaned to me by my friend Wayne to whom it had been gifted as a Christmas present. It is the handsomely produced Illustrated Edition by Chatto and Windus. I dearly wanted to like this work, particularly after all the glowing reviews and its international popularity, but ultimately I was unable to find the sweet-spot that would bring it all together. I did not dislike the work; but I did not like it either. Trying to work out why has not been an easy task. There is no doubt that the author seems obsessively concerned about details. I could not help thinking many times that the writing reflects too much of that excess, delicate though it might be. There is a cut-and-paste quality that results when disparate facts are stitched together in a kind of haphazard way: some sentences seem to appear out of nowhere, in the midst of other sentences only very tenuously connected. The whole work seems to be thinly attenuated, so when odd sentences are inserted, they appear to take on a deeper significance, or carry a subtle meaning — there is almost a feel that the words work more on a subconscious level than anything else. The author seems to be carefully picking his was through lots of research material, and linking them all delicately into a framework which, to be honest, ultimately lacks depth. This method does allow for 'connections' to be made, mostly by the reader. When we have a very rich family which uses its money and influence with the upper echelons of the various societies covered, there should be no surprise that there are references to various artists of their acquaintance. Does identifying Charles Effrusi in Renoir's painting The Boatmen's Luncheon really add much to the painting? Or suggesting that this same Charles might have been the model for Proust's Swann? Interesting, of course, but that's about it. The story about Manet's 'extra asparagus' painting is amusing, but within the world of artists and patrons, hardly 'important' — is this merely an inside joke on the part of Manet? a kind of 'thank you' for the extra money Charles had paid for the original commission? a way for Manet to avoid any sense of being in Charles' debt because of the extra money? One can see that this is all 'evocative', but not very illuminating. This delicate cross-referencing is found throughout, on many levels, including, of course, relating to the tumultuous course of European history in the early 20th century. While the story the 'Aryianisation' of the Ephrussi palace in Vienna is powerfully described, the family certainly does not appear to suffer too much — or whether they do is not told: right throughout the book very little is given regarding the inner thoughts of people; everything seems to be conveyed through the presentation of details of the furniture, buildings, acquisitions, social activities; and the author is extremely coy on matters of sexual activity. Perhaps the book is best when we are made privy to the authors' thoughts and feelings as he pursues his odyssey. Even here, however, the style of presentation is strange. While describing certain locations, the author often abruptly shifts from objective description into a kind of imagined tour, as if the book is being written for someone to follow in his footsteps. One example only: on page 353 of my edition we are presented with a photo of what looks like a cook in kitchen. One wonders whether this might be Iggie's lover/friend/adopted-son Jiro, but the text then tells us it is Iggie's chef Mr Haneda. We then come across the following sentence: 'We move inside into a long corridor and turn left, where the cook, Mr Haneda is in his whites, eyes closed against the flash, leaning on the new cooker, chef's hat set jauntily on the back of his head. A bottle of Heinz ketchup is the only food in view, Kodachrome scarlet against the blindingly clean enamel.' De Waal is talking about some Kodachrome photos; suddenly, "we move inside…" [?]. In the text, the scarlet of the ketchup bottle is startling and precise — but an examination of the photo reveals this to be a minor detail, and besides, there appear to be other bottles and containers behind the cook. Is ketchup a 'food'? Do the other bottles also contain other sauces? Are they 'foods'? (Indeed it would have been better is the author has said there is no food at all visible.) And the reference to the 'blindingly clean enamel' makes one wonder just how accurate de Waals descriptions are — they may all be more excessive poetic evocations rather than reality… and de Waal does like to use qualifying adjective profusely… On p. 395 the author writes: 'I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.' I would say it is about none of them. Nor is it really about family history (only some of the family members are included, and indeed of these the emphasis is mostly on 'the Ephrussi boys'). Nor is it academic (there is no index, so names and places are impossible to look up quickly, if at all; some quotations in the book are referenced; some sources can be inferred; but there are others which are are simply entered as quotations, with no attributions — so one cannot make even an assumption on their provenance, or even their objectivity). The publishers of this illustrated edition also need a rap on the knuckles: none of the pictures newly incorporated bear any identification (you have continually to turn to the back of the book to find out what some of the pictures are — and even there the information provided is minimal in the extreme). Surely, since the book would have needed to be redesigned for the special edition, it would have been not only proper but necessary to ensure that the photos were suitably subtitled within the book itself and, indeed, embellished to provide more information on their subjects: the people, history and/or locations represented; and perhaps it would also have been useful if they had been more tightly connected with specific page references to the text itself. But no. It ends up with the reader feeling that perhaps the publishers were simply cashing in on the popularity of the book with only minimum effort to integrate the Special Edition properly. So all in all, a disappointment.

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